John Stuart Mill, in his seminal On Liberty, wrote,

“Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.”

The remark carries a number of significant implications. It defines an intolerant person as one who wishes others to live as he thinks they ought, and who seeks to impose his practices and beliefs upon them. It says that the human community benefits by permitting a variety of ways of life to flourish, because they represent experiments in dealing with the human condition from which much might be learned. It iterates the premise that no one has the right to tell another how to be or to act, provided that it does no harm to others. (The main facet of “the Golden Rule”).

These are the tenets of liberalism, a word of malediction or curse among those who fear that unless a tight grip is kept on human thoughts and instincts, the earth will break open and demons will rise.

But this “Live and let live” tolerance is also the paradox of liberalism. Liberalism urges tolerance of opposing viewpoints, and allows them to have their say, leaving it to a democracy of different ideas and viewpoints to decide which should prevail.

Often the result is the death of toleration, because those who live by “hard principles” and uncompromising views in political, moral and religious respects always, if given half a chance, silence liberal free thinkers, because liberalism, by its nature, threatens the hegemony that they seek to impose.

Should the tolerant tolerate the intolerant?” To this question the answer should be a resounding “No“.

Tolerance has to protect itself. It can easily do so by saying that anyone can put a point of view, but no one can force another to accept it. The only coercion should be that of argument, the only obligation should be to honest reasoning.

Helen Keller said;

“the highest result of education is tolerance,”

and she is right; (in most cases at least) the unbiased reasoning of an informed mind will come out in favour of what is good and true.

Intolerance is a psychologically interesting phenomenon because it is symptomatic of insecurity and fear. Fear of the other, fear of change, fear of self-worth. A confronting of ones own dissonance.

Religious Zealots who would, if they could, persecute you into conforming with their way of things, might claim to be trying to save your soul despite yourself, but are really doing it because they feel threatened.

ISIS/The Taliban, force women to wear veils, to stay at home, and to give up education and work, because they are afraid of women’s freedom, their innate sexuality.

The old become intolerant of the younger generations when alarmed by youth’s indifference or scorn towards what they have long known and held dear. Fear begets intolerance, and intolerance begets fear: the cycle is a vicious one.

Tolerance isn’t about the coin flip of acceptance and rejection. I tolerate a belief or a practice without accepting it. One example may be Gay marriage?

I often say “if you don’t like Gay marriage, don’t get Gay married! Who am I to stop two people’s conjoined misery?” We as a civilisation, have to recognize that there is plenty of room in the world for alternatives to coexist, and that if one is offended by what others do it is because one has allowed it to get under ones skin.

Socrates’ “Know Thyself” < temet nosce > is a warning, and is applied to those whose boasts exceed what they are, it is a warning to pay no attention to the opinion of the multitude.

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates uses the maxim ‘know thyself‘ as his explanation to Phaedrus for why he has no time for mythology or other far flung topics. Socrates says, “But I have no leisure for them at all; and the reason, my friend, is this: I am not yet able, as the Delphic inscription has it, to know myself; so it seems to me ridiculous, when I do not yet know that, to investigate irrelevant things.

I think we only tolerate others best when we learn and understand how to tolerate ourselves: learning how to do so is the aim of civilised life. I would like to think my Art is a weapon against intolerance.


“You’ve gotta tolerate all those people that you hate, I’m not in love with you, but I won’t hold that against you.” Juxtaposed With U, SFA

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